Leader: Them or us - a nasty test of altruism in academia

August 31, 2001

The prime minister's demand for a review of the student fee, loan and grant regime is welcome. Such a review is overdue and should feed into the next spending review. But there is a risk that loss of political nerve will produce a result that costs higher education dear. Participation by poorer students has always been a problem: fees did not make it worse. Removing grants, not charging fees (which they do not pay) has pushed poorer students into debt. Nor are overall debt figures a precise measure of need: while debts are highest among the poorest students, richer families know a good thing when they see it and are not scared by £10,000 debts at zero real interest. If the education department is disingenuous in equating loans with income, students and others are equally so in equating debt with hardship.

This is not to say things are fine as they are. They are not. It would be better to do what Dearing recommended: provide some form of grant and make fees payable after graduation according to graduates', not their parents', income. In the medium term, the take might be higher given graduates' earning advantage and could provide more cash for grants. In the short term, the Treasury would have to stump up.

The rub for higher education is that if political pressure pushes the government into restoring grants and removing fees - at the cost of anything up to £1 billion a year - there will be less chance of more cash for pay, for extra staff as numbers rise and for better facilities. It is a choice that puts academic altruism to a truly nasty test.

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